How a manga comic hero inspired Japan's football

Japanese football fans seem to have been going crazy for their national team since the FIFA World Cup finals were staged in Japan and South Korea in 2002. But an exhibition at the Japan football museum in Tokyo suggests that some of the earliest seeds of interest in football in Japan were sown by a popular football manga series - Captain Tsubasa - a decade before even the J-League was formed in 1992. "Captain Tsubasa, also known as Kyapu-tsuba, is believed to have started helping soccer take root in Japanese society, inspiring star players such as former Japan national team captain Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura, who recently led his Scottish Premier League club Celtic to its second straight league title. The comic has even gone on to influence overseas players such as Brazil’s Ronaldinho and Italy’s Francesco Totti," wrote Ikuko Kitagawa in the Daily Yomiuri.

The exhibition, subtitled "everyone was once a Tsubasa", displays enlarged copies of key scenes from the 26-year-long series, comments from professional players who were influenced by him and copies of the comic books translated into various languages including Italian, German and Chinese. The comic, authored by Yoichi Takahashi, is a coming-of-age tale about a schoolboy, Tsubasa Ozora, who moves to Shizuoka Prefecture and joins a football team there. He finds he has to grow up quickly as he encounters teammates with strong personalities and a whole host of rivals. In the series, Tsubasa eventually goes on to make the national team. The series has continued on and off since 1981, and in the most recent series, Captain Tsubasa Golden-23, Tsubasa is depicted playing in Japan’s U-23 side at a fictional Olympic games.

Sports journalist Seijun Ninomiya told The Daily Yomiuri that over the years the comic has helped expand the football population base, including both players and supporters. “Players in my generation definitely were influenced by seeing Captain Tsubasa,” said Masakiyo Maezono, 33, who captained the national team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and is now a commentator. He recalled that through the comic books he learned a lot from Tsubasa’s playing style and global outlook. Maezono eventually played professionally in Brazil just like Tsubasa does in the manga. “I learned that ‘the ball is my friend’ from the comic. I think Captain Tsubasa has made many people feel close to football said Maezono, who is currently working on the popularisation of youth football. Freelance writer Shuntaro Fukagawa, who wrote Captain Tsubasa no Shorigaku, a book discussing what professional players can learn from characters in the comic, said the way the Japan national team plays reminds him of how Tsubasa’s team plays in the comics. “I think that almost no Japanese players play dirty such as diving elaborately, writhing around ‘in pain’ on the ground or time-wasting. I think in this way Japan’s playing style reflects Tsubasa’s desire to play fair,” Fukagawa said.